Typing up her latest scornful, fill-in-the-blank sermon about Hillary Clinton -- the kind Maureen Dowd has been churning out robotically for two decades (only the “scandal” topic changes) -- the New York Times columnist actually began her latest missive by likening the Clintons to the Iranian regime. A few paragraphs later, Dowd had managed to segue to perhaps her favorite topic: Bill Clinton's distant sex life. In fact, the March 14 column became Dowd's 100th that contained a “Lewinsky” reference, according to a review of Dowd's columns in the Nexis database.
Dowd's fixation may be something of an outlier at the Times. Who else would reference an extramarital affair in one hundred different columns? But Dowd clearly does represent the Times' larger, institutional and never-ending personal antagonism toward Bill and Hillary Clinton. It's been a Times-sponsored grudge match that goes back more than two decades. (Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. once told Clinton the paper had adopted a “tough love” policy towards his presidency. “I've seen the tough,” Clinton quipped. “Where's the love?” ) And now that enmity has been awakened for the recent Hillary Clinton email saga.
Has that contempt fueled the Times' often sloppy coverage lately? “The real controversy isn't about politics or regulations,” wrote Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek, offering up a detailed critique of the Times' email reporting. “It's about journalism and the weak standards employed to manufacture the scandal du jour.”
For instance, note that in its March 2 report about Clinton's emails, the one that ignited the so-called scandal, The New York Times suggested Clinton “may have violated federal requirements” through her use of a non-government email address while serving as secretary of state." It was that hint of criminality that first gave the story so much pop in the press.
But it turns out that hint of criminality was invented by the Times newsroom, as several news outlets have since confirmed that Clinton did nothing illegal with her email account. (Ten days later, the Times got around to making that point itself.)
And that's the pattern we've seen unfold for twenty-plus years at the Times. With the bogus pursuits of Whitewater, the Loral spy satellites story, would-be spy Wen Ho Lee, and now Hillary Clinton's emails, the Times uncorks supposedly blockbuster allegations against a Clinton that are based on vague reporting that later turns out to be flimsy, but not before the rest of the Beltway media erupts in a guttural roar (led by sanctimonious Times columnists), and not before Republicans launch investigations intended to destroy the Clintons politically.
Last week, the Times' Patrick Healy wrote that the news media is emerging as Hillary Clinton's toughest political opponent. Indeed, the Times, once again, remains at the front of the charge.
Since the email story broke, Times columnist have published a series of Clinton condemnations, often couched in oddly personal terms. (i.e. She's “prickly” and her “forced smile” is “practically cemented in place.” ) Yet as Media Matters noted, in the wake of the 2007 email scandal when the Bush White House lost millions of private account emails that were sought by Congressional investigators, not a single Times columnist weighed in on the topic, let alone condemned Republicans and their reckless or secretive ways.
Meanwhile, note this Times-created illustration that was recently used to depict the email story, where Hillary Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, was actually portrayed as the Wicked Witch of the East, crushed by a smartphone.
Who does that?
Are Bill and Hillary Clinton uniquely powerful politicians and private citizens whose actions ought to be closely scrutinized? Absolutely. Did the Times need to publish two stand-alone news articles about the Clintons' summer rental plans in 2013? It did not. Did the Times need to interview “some 50 people” in a creepy effort to suss out the status of the Clinton marriage in 2006? It did not. But this is what the Times does and what it's always done, too often portraying the Clintons as relentlessly selfish and calculating phonies. And Republicans have cheered the Times every step of the way.
For a new generation of reporters and commentators, it might be hard to grasp the truly toxic relationship that existed in the 1990s between the Times and the most popular two-term Democratic president in half a century. But it was pervasive. (Note that a handful of key exceptions within the Times fought back.)
That kind of weird invective seemed to infect the Times' reporting and led the newsroom astray again and again and again, as the paper oversold stories in a concerted effort to make the Clintons look bad.
For instance, does this critique sound familiar?
"[The Times] rushed into this," suggests Steve Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “This story was given to them and nobody else and they decided to run it without thinking through what they were doing. They created the illusion of something that just wasn't there and ignored the other evidence that painted a different picture.”
Sounds like the Times' original Clinton email story, right? The one that omitted fundamental facts that should have been included to provide context.
But the above quote is actually from an article I wrote 15 years about how the New York Times railroaded Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee; how the paper portrayed him as a Chinese spy, and suggested the Clinton administration had let him roam free while the communist sympathizer stole vital U.S. secrets.
The initial Lee hysteria was virtually sponsored by the New York Times, which was eventually forced to publish a long mea culpa in an attempt to explain how the paper got the spy story so wrong.
Hint: The Times got the story so wrong because it tried to oversell a Clinton scandal. Today, the pattern persists.